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The following eight articles were taken from a discussion on the e-mail discussion list for RC Community members.

Counseling People Who Think about Suicide

Dear RCers,

I have a close friend who has a plan for killing herself. She has internalized genocide recordings* and internalized disability oppression recordings. She knows a little RC theory.

Do you have experience counseling people, whether RCers or not, who spend time thinking about and planning to kill themselves? What has been your experience, what has worked, and what have you learned?

Chris Selig
San Francisco, California, USA

* Distress recordings

Attention on the Benign Reality

When I was eighteen, I counseled regularly with someone who wouldn’t have been doing weekly sessions except that I always came banging on her door. She had attempted suicide in high school, had been hospitalized, and continued to have suicidal thoughts.

For her, attention on the benign reality made all the difference. We spent hours looking out the window and crying. We also used Winnie-the-Pooh stories and quotes. Those stories, and that particular character, are focused on present time and the benign reality. They paved the way for sessions in which she could look directly at the early material.1 She could focus there as long as I was both fierce and relaxed in my conviction that yes, it had been that bad, but that she had survived and it was over.

She isn’t in RC anymore, but she has a good life. She looked me up2 recently because she came across a Winnie-the-Pooh quote and thought of me.

Tresa Elguera
Brooklyn, New York, USA

1 “Material” means distress.
2 “Looked me up” means contacted me.

A Powerful and Hopeful Experience

Many years ago I was a patient in a psychiatric hospital. I was dealing with a major bereavement, was not sleeping, and had some physical symptoms. An emergency room doctor persuaded me to be committed for what I thought would be two or three days but which turned out to be eleven. Once I’d had some sleep, I was able to balance my attention.1  However, I couldn’t leave, so I began building relationships with the other people there.

One was a young Latino man who had attempted suicide. He showed people his scars and talked a lot about how much he wanted to die and what he would try next time so that he would succeed. The staff and some of the other patients were scared by his talk and were tense around him. I was light with him. I would ask in an interested tone what exactly he was planning, and how it would work. I would joke with him, asking questions like, ”Hey, how would you kill yourself with an apple, a paper clip, and a rubber band?” In art therapy class, I’d hold up pieces of art materials or tools and raise my eyebrows to mean, “Would this work?” He became more relaxed around me.

One day he came to me and showed me a plastic knife. He pointed out that we were not allowed to have metal butter knives but that a broken plastic knife was like a razor, and we laughed. At that point I was able to ask him about his life. He was a child of Latin American immigrants. His father had worked hard to build a business that he wanted his son to run.2 The young man was an artist, and art was what he passionately wanted to do, but he felt trapped by his parents’ expectations. His attempts at suicide were about his desperation to escape his feeling that he owed it to them to live their dreams and not his own.

His parents were about to visit,3 and I counseled him to tell them what he really wanted. I told him that they loved him and that, even if they were upset by his wishes, they didn’t want him to die rather than live his own life. I said that he needed to make them understand how important art was to him.

I am an older Latina immigrant, and my backing4 him to be an artist seemed to offer him a big contradiction.5 I told him that clearly what he wanted was not to die but to make art. I told him that his parents had worked hard so that he could have choices like that, even if they didn’t understand what he chose. I said that they were scared for him, which is why they wanted him to pick something that felt safe to them, but that he had the right to live his life the way he wanted and that eventually they would be proud of him, and that I was proud of him right now. I told him artists were important and necessary. Then I got him to promise me not to make any attempts to kill or injure himself for forty-eight hours. I said I’d be available to talk anytime during that time but that he had to agree not to hurt himself. He shook a lot, and laughed, and agreed.

He came to my room several times to tell me he was still keeping our agreement. I didn’t get to hear how it went with his parents, but I told him that if he wanted, I could be his guardian angel. Anytime he wanted to kill himself, he could remember our conversation and decide not to, and to keep remembering that it was good to be an artist.

What worked was to stay clear that he didn’t actually want to die, to be light and funny about it, and to find out what felt intolerable to him and assert that he didn’t have to tolerate it, that disappointing his parents might feel bad but was better than dying. And I showed him that it was important to me, personally, that he live.

This was a powerful and hopeful experience for me.

Aurora Levins Morales
Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA 

1 “Balance my attention” means get enough attention on benign reality to have perspective.
2 “Run” means manage.
3 “Were about to visit” means were going to visit soon.
4 “Backing” means supporting.
5 Contradiction to distress

Being Creative, Staying Light

In regard to suicidal “thoughts,” each person, relationship, and situation is different and being creative is key. I was close to a teenage girl (neither she nor her parents were RCers), and she trusted me enough to tell me about her suicide thoughts. I would stay light, never look worried, and get her laughing about it. For example, she would talk about wanting to jump off the roof of her building. I would make sounds of falling and exploding on the sidewalk. She would laugh hard and look much brighter afterward.

I would tell her that I used to have those thoughts, too. I would chat about it lightly, like I was talking about making chocolate chip cookies. It was important to remember that nobody really wants to commit suicide so that she could join me in not being worried about having those thoughts. Mostly, of course, I was effective because I loved her as much as I did.

Ela Thier
New York, New York, USA

Counselors Need to Work on Their Feelings

I’ve counseled several people, both inside and outside of RC, on suicide recordings.1

As counselors, we need to work on our feelings about suicide. People have correctly talked about the importance of being relaxed when counseling people on suicidal thoughts. However, when I hear that I should stay relaxed about something, I often try to make myself look relaxed without having done the work that would lead to my actually being relaxed.

Suicide is scary! Being relaxed doesn’t mean denying or minimizing this. It means taking our feelings about suicide to our sessions so that we don’t make our client be our counselor on our feelings about suicide (which is what usually happens when people admit to having suicidal thoughts). We get to show our fear about suicide in our sessions.

I’ve noticed that people with suicidal thoughts often feel that something big needs to change in their lives and feel hopeless about making the change. They are usually right that something big needs to change! Maybe they are in an abusive relationship, are struggling with a major addiction, are trapped in the “mental health” system, or have a life that does not contradict their early material.2 It is helpful to acknowledge this: “Yes, your life isn’t working right now; I agree that some things need to change,” or “I think you can have a bigger and better life than you can imagine right now, and I can support you to make that happen.” I’ve watched some pretty3 amazing life transformations happen after people shared their suicidal thoughts.

Emma Roderick
Northampton, Massachusetts, USA

1 Distress recordings
2 “Material” means distress.
3 “Pretty” means quite.

A Promise to Get Permission 

I recall a demonstration Harvey* did with someone who was working on “suicidal tendencies.” First he quietly listened as she discharged on suicide. Then, in his own inimitable way, he “agreed” that she needed to commit suicide. At the same time, he made her promise to get his permission before doing it. This led to a lot of discharge (and would also stand in the way of her committing suicide). By the end of the session, the client was yawning, and laughing loudly.

Homi Bilimoria
Mumbai, India

* Harvey Jackins

Suicidal Thoughts Are Recordings

I work as a counselor and come across suicidal patterns in my work. I tell people that suicidal “thoughts” are old recordings.1 If they are not familiar with RC theory, I briefly explain what recordings are.

I ask them to tell me their earliest memories of such thoughts. Sometimes this leads to an early memory that set in the recording. Discharge often comes if they can understand that the recording “plays” without their permission and that it is about old, often unbearable-at-the-time feelings. If there are no memories, I ask them to make up a story and see if it rings true.2 The story is usually some version of “Once there was a baby who saw that the situation was not ideal. . . .”

I stay as close as I can while continuing to express confidence that the feelings of hopelessness are old and not about the present, even though they make people believe that they are still small and powerless and alone. I often say how sorry I am that they have had to carry around a recording that “attacks” them mercilessly. I then suggest that they might be able to get some control over the recording by connecting more closely with people, and discharging.

I stay relaxed and curious about any “plan” they have for how they might kill themselves. The plan is part of the recording. This follows from RC theory. A wide-world study showed that how teens commit suicide is often related to birth trauma. For example, those who hang themselves more often had breathing difficulties during and after their birth.

“Flash answers” almost always yield useful material for discharge, even if there are no concrete memories. (See “The Use of ‘Flash’ Answers” in The Rest of Our Lives, by Harvey Jackins.) Once I have their permission to try something, I explain that the mind often delivers up important information without our knowing why. I say that I am going to ask a question and would like them to give me the first thought that comes into their mind, even if it seems to have nothing to do with the question. Then I say, for example, “What is your earliest memory connected to guns (or hanging, or pills)? First thought.” I modify the question to fit their plan.

It is liberating to understand that suicidal thoughts are recordings.

Emmy Rainwalker
Boston, Massachusetts, USA

1 Distress recordings
2 “Rings true” means seems true.

“It Calls Their Integrity into Play”

I like very much what people have said and only think of one thing to add. In addition to the above, I have counseled people by saying that they need to tell all the people they love and all the people who love them that they plan to kill themselves, and say goodbye. We have started a list and worked on telling those people.

This helps them remember that they are loved, that the people close to them would want to know that they’re in trouble and have a chance to help, and that they would be missed. It also helps them fully face and discharge on the finality of the decision. It calls their integrity into play,* and I think that helps pull them out of despair.

Diane Shisk
Seattle, Washington, USA

* “Into play” means into action.

Last modified: 2021-06-01 12:29:59+00